Think different

Editor's note: Chris Wirthwein is senior director of 5MetaCom. He can be reached at

What’s the first and most important task for any B2B marketing team? For my money, it’s achieving differentiation. If true, then it makes sense that the most valued member of a product team is one who delivers ideas to achieve this.

Allow me to illustrate with an exercise I used to open my presentation at the Chicago Quirk’s Event earlier this year. To the group, I displayed a large image on the screen – a group of pencils: 20 or so black and a single yellow-orange one. The slide contained no words, just the photo. I then posed two questions. First: “Which pencil is best?” From the facial expressions, the crowd appeared baffled, confused, even a little annoyed. Of course they were! Question two let them off the hook: “Which pencil is different?” Instant makeover! Smiles, a few chuckles – and point made. Yes, all people understand, react to and are instantly attracted to what is different!

So, how can insights professionals become the most valued member of a B2B product team?

  • Think like a product strategist: think differentiation
  • Deliver strategic, differentiation-enabling insights to the team
  • Bring differentiation ideas to the table

How important is differentiation in marketing? Listen to what others have to say on our subject:

“Humans are wired to detect irregular things.” John Hallward, insights professional and author of “Gimme! The Human Nature of Successful Marketing”

“We don’t pay attention to boring things.” John Medina, neuroscientist and author of “Brain Rules”

“Compete to be unique.” (Stop competing to be the best.) Michael Porter, Harvard University, creator of the Five Forces Model of competition

“The way to think about differentiation is not as an offspring of competition but as an escape from competition altogether.” Youngme Moon, Harvard University, author of “Different – Escaping the Competitive Herd”

And why is being different so important? Because when your product is perceived as being the same as others, no one will notice. Take a look at Figure 1. It shows the crowded B2B category of marketing technology software. Which one is best? Who knows!? No buyer will ever take the time to find out. The only hope for any of these products to win is to first, be different. Same likely goes for the category you’re in. But it wasn’t always this way.

Marketing Technology Landscape

In the past, people had lots of time on their hands. What they didn’t have were lots of choices. Henry Ford reportedly said in the early 1900s, “You can get any color of automobile you want, as long as you choose black.” Funny, perhaps, but true. Ford’s purchasing agents surely met more of the same when searching for automobile paint, bearings and other industrial goods to satisfy the engineering specs of the Model T. That period could be summed up as an era of unlimited time and limited choices. And about all a marketer had to do to make a sale was interrupt the buyer. Every horse and buggy owner could instantly perceive the difference and superiority of an automobile. But things changed.

After World War II, the world burst forth with innovation, production efficiencies and an abundance of choices. Making the sale required marketers to do more than simply interrupt. They had to persuade, as in: “Our widget is better than theirs.” And what happened to the quaint concept of unlimited time and limited choices? Gone forever. Replaced by a world of limited time and virtually unlimited choices. It has intensified to this day. 

To cope with this, today’s B2B buyers gravitate to a different way of purchasing. They buy products to perform a task. Utility of a product – its fitness for a purpose – has become a dominant buying paradigm. Effective B2B strategists today understand that above all else, winning in complex, crowded markets requires an unswerving mind-set for establishing perceived differentiation and product utility in the marketplace.

Fail to deliver

I don’t need to tell you how important insights are to the success of B2B marketing. Yet I’ve seen plenty of market research studies fail to deliver on this. Why? Because they did not deliver actionable insights – information instructing marketing and creative teams on how to express the product’s differentiation and utility to the audience. In my estimation, the most valuable insights center on three Cs: company, customer and competitor(s). 


This includes findings related to the product (or service), the corporation (and company brand) and what in these two areas are or could be viewed as differentiating. You may not think of this type of internal investigation as insights work but I encourage you to do so. In my experience, differentiating ideas and strategies can be discovered inside the company. To that end, learn how the company discovers, makes, sells and supports its products to users and sellers. Understand the way the company operates – its beliefs, priorities, history and culture. Also understand that because no two companies are alike, the corporate essence and brand are often fertile hunting grounds for differentiation.


The ultimate value you can deliver here is knowledge of what customers (and prospects) care about. Do this by learning what constitutes relevance and utility in the eyes of the customer. Relevance speaks to the self-interests of your audiences. And as you know, things customers care about often don’t involve our product. Keep your eyes and ears open for these. Explore bigger-picture areas before getting into details about your product. 

I once learned in an in-depth interview an entirely new way in which our client’s customer approached the production process in his business. Compared to others, he had flipped the situation on its ear, in essence, doing it backwards. He had his reasons. Doing it this way allowed him to stage his production to get greater efficiency from labor and capital resources. It was so simple and elegant, yet no one else had thought of it. And it just so happened that a certain unique (and overlooked) feature of our client’s product provided a utility that fit ideally into his unorthodox method. In time, others adopted his innovative ways. And you can bet we emphasized this difference and utility that our client’s product provided in our marketing and advertising. As for that once-obscure product feature?  It became a must-have for an entire industry and led to near 100% adoption of the category. 

When you know and can articulate what customers care about and what utility they seek, you’ll be pointed in the right direction in the search for differentiation.


Gaining a deep understanding of the competition is something many product teams never get around to, given their multiple priorities. And so, what better way to add value than by making this an area you master? Understand what customers and non-customers think of your competitors. Learn where they’re perceived as strong (different) and where they’re vulnerable to your differences and utility. I also encourage you to gather insights from the perspective of your organization’s people in the field – the sales and support teams. They can often be a valuable source of ideas on what makes your product different in the marketplace.

Two idea-starters

I could fill the rest of the pages in this issue with idea-starters for differentiation. I’ve picked out a couple from the pages of my book “Different Rules – the B2B Marketer’s Guidebook to Product Differentiation” to get things going.

“Because” – the reason to believe. In the book, I discuss the problem with benefits and the surprising benefit of features, especially in B2B. But let’s start with definitions. A feature is a tangible aspect of a product, something observable, provable, measurable. Examples: length, weight, specific gravity, density, color, etc. And here’s the benefit of using features to differentiate: features can be proven. They therefore thus invite little to no skepticism or debate from audiences. 

A benefit is a positive result – and there are two types: direct benefits and derived benefits. (Heads up: This distinction between the two is a new idea.) A direct benefit is a positive outcome that can be attributed to a feature. Example: increased durability is a direct benefit of a diamond coating placed on a cutting-tool bit. A derived benefit is an extrapolated positive outcome. Example: reduced downtime (fewer production-line stoppages) for replacing cutting-tool bits is a derived benefit resulting from durability. 

The lengths that derived benefits can be taken sometimes extend to the absurd (pride, job satisfaction, greater ROI, peace of mind, etc.). And here lies the problem: Benefits can invite and produce skepticism and debate. And why is this a problem? Because B2B purchase invariably involve efforts by the buyer to manage and reduce risk. Yet when marketers emphasize and stretch benefit claims, skepticism, debate and perceived risk go up. Sellers make derived benefit claims all the time. But inherently, sellers are biased. And buyers know this. Furthermore, derived benefits often don’t differentiate. Pick a category of B2B products. How many times have you seen or heard a marketer claim “better ROI”? Hardly a differentiating claim in most categories, especially mature ones. 

Now for the differentiating idea-starter: Provide a reason to believe – a “because” – for what makes your product different. And more often than not, you’ll find a feature (rather than a benefit) to be a credible “because” of what makes your product different. Your “because” could be how the product was developed (an R&D story), how it’s made, users’ point of view (ranked #1 by _______, etc.) and many, many more. 

How important is having a “because”? Market research supplies the answer. Are you familiar with the copy machine study? In it, Harvard professors had researchers approach people in waiting in line at the library copy machine and ask one of three very specifically worded questions:

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” A request only; no reason 

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush.” A request with a real reason

“Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies.” A request with an immaterial reason

Results? Question 1 (request only, no reason): 60% said yes to the request. Question 2 (request with real reason): 94% said yes. Question 3 (request with immaterial reason): 94% said yes. And what’s the moral of the story for marketers? Always provide a reason for what makes your product different. This study was not conducted with B2B audiences and nothing was being bought or sold but with that in mind, my advice for B2B marketers is to provide your audiences an entirely material and relevant “because.”

Category as a strategic differentiator. “First,” “the only,” “leader” – what marketer doesn’t covet these positions? Bring forward an idea that establishes one of these positions and you’ll add great value to your product team. But isn’t being the first or the only something that only R&D can do? And “leader” – that’s market share, something the sales team does, yes? I disagree. Stay with me as I discuss category and you’ll see why. 

What’s a category? An organizational container in the mind into which we place similar things. Think of category as a mental file folder. B2C and B2B consumers have categories for all sort of things: from energy drinks and SUVs to industrial abrasives and metal coatings. And speaking of energy drinks, don’t get brand confused with category. Red Bull – that’s a brand name. It “lives” in a category: energy drink. What’s this have to do with differentiating ideas for B2B? This: As a marketer, you may be able to create a category that establishes your product as “first,” “only” or “the leader.” Examples where this has been done in B2C marketing abound. But it’s much rarer in B2B. 

Here's a B2B example I’m familiar with, having worked on it. Today, building codes mostly require commercial buildings to be equipped with automatic sprinklers to put out fires. Accordingly, there’s a category for products like this: fire suppression. And when our agency began working in this arena, water sprinklers and the fire suppression category went together. When commercial construction audiences thought of the category, water sprinklers came to mind. And yet, our client had developed a product that put out fires without water. And this turned out to be a big thing. That’s because most of the damage in commercial building fires comes from the water doused on the flames by automatic sprinklers. Commercial buildings only rarely burn to the ground. Yet insurance adjusting data shows that plenty of businesses and buildings are essentially ruined by the water from sprinklers. Our client’s product had trouble breaking into the market because of the singular dominance of water sprinklers in the fire-suppression category. Yet, based on insights research we conducted, the market seemed primed for a disruptor via an idea we developed – a new category. 

Our research showed that audiences had some familiarity with the problems caused by employing water to put out fires. And even when they didn’t, they quickly understood and acknowledged them. But most didn’t know there was any other way. Enter our idea – a new category: waterless fire suppression. Do you see the idea? It’s the last syllable of the word: waterless. This one word contained the necessary relevance and utility to dramatically differentiate our client’s product in the marketplace. Just by stating the category “waterless” fire suppression created a powerful impression, bringing up a question in the mind of the audience: “I wonder what’s wrong with water?” There’s lots more to say, but the strategy and the idea of the new category worked. You can find details of this case study in my book. What I want you to learn here is to open your mind to the possibility of creating a powerful position through a new, differentiated product category.

It pays to be different

A Harvard Business Review article, “Discovering new points of differentiation,” by Ian C. MacMillan and Rita Gunther McGrath, contains this important thought and reminder: “Most profitable strategies are built on differentiation: offering customers something they value that competitors don't have.”

As an insights professional, you are in a unique position to lead the charge in your product team’s quest for differentiation. That’s because you possess a unique combination of skills required to identify what customers “value that competitors don’t have.” To succeed at this: think like a product strategist – think differentiation; deliver strategic, differentiation-enabling insights to your product team; and bring differentiation ideas to the table. Stated simply: play by different rules.